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Music Review: Mahavishnu Orchestra – Live At Montreux 1984/1974 DVD

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You know sometimes I just wish people didn't feel like they had to label every single last permeation possible when it comes to music. At least we've got to draw a line somewhere don't you think? Jazz/Funk fusion I can cope with; maybe I can even get my head around Jazz/Funk/Blues, but Trip/Hip-hop/Funk/Pop/House/Punk/Blues- Jazz? That's a little much don't you think?

Okay so that doesn't exist, but you could almost believe it can't you? If I had left out House and maybe the hop of Hip-hop you would have bought it for sure. That's not the point anyway; the point is doesn't there comes a time when the non-musicians need to shut up and let the musicians play?

Every time somebody so much as even thinks about another genre of music while playing, the hyphens start flying. You know it's all in fun until somebody loses an eye kids, and the way hyphens are getting chucked around music these days we're lucky most bands aren't called "So and So and their guide dogs."

You know what makes the whole fusion thing even more ridiculous? Show me one genre of popular music dating back to the early 1900's that's not the result of the fusion of two different types of music and I'll be really shocked. Hell, try to find any form of music dating back as far as you want into human history that's not fusion and you won't be able to. But do we call Beethoven Romantic/Neo Classical/Choral/Orchestral/Chamber/Baroque Fusion? Of course not, that would just be silly. But he did take all those elements and draw upon them for his orchestral works, because they were his musical influences.

Sort of like what Miles Davis must have done when he was creating music in the late 1960's and giving credit to James Brown for his influence. I'm wondering if the problem might lie with Jazz "purists" who don't want their pure blooded Jazz music to be diluted by anything as unsophisticated as Funk. I guess you don't have to know very much music history to be a Jazz purist, do you? Otherwise, they wouldn't be such dumb-asses to not know that Jazz and Funk come from the same source.

It might have been Miles who first started experimenting with combining Jazz and Funk, but it was people playing with him at the time that would go on to be that style's biggest proponents. Wayne Shorter played with Miles before he was part of Weather Report. In its heyday, Weather Report was the predominant modern Jazz band, the yardstick against which all other "fusion" bands were measured.

But that doesn't mean they were the best, or the only band of their type around; they were simply the most consistent and the most durable. In my opinion it was another ex Davis sideman, guitar player John McLaughlin, and his Mahavishnu Orchestra, who was the cream of the crop of all the new Jazz bands forming up in the early 1970s.

Unfortunately he was never able to hold a band together for long enough for them to really establish themselves. Each incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra might be superb, but if there is a gap of more then two years between recordings you might as well have to start from zero again as far as the public is concerned. According to information in the liner notes to the Eagle Rock Entertainment release, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Live At Montreux 1984/1974 McLaughlin disbanded the group shortly after that 1974 concert and didn't reform it until 1983 with a completely new line up.

Live At Montreux 1984/1974 is a two-disc DVD visual and audio record of those two extremely different concerts. (Unfortunately, only two tracks of video from the 1974 concert exist so four of the cuts are audio only) The major difference between the two concerts is the make up of the band. In 1974 they were far more like a real orchestra with Jean-Luc Ponty heading up a four person string section; there was also a flute and a horn player, drums, keyboard, and of course McLaughlin on guitar.
John McLaughlin.jpg

The line up in 1984 was far more along the typical jazz combo formation with keyboards, saxophone, bass, drums, and McLaughlin on guitar. The other big difference was the technology available in 1984 probably hadn't even been dreamed of when they were filming the first concert. A bank of four keyboards has replaced the organ used in the earlier concert and McLaughlin has a Synclavier 2 device (a rectangle coming off the body of the guitar) attached to one of his guitars that turns it into a keyboard. A far cry from a wah-wah pedal and whatever else was available for guitar players in the early seventies.

The picture of McLaughlin above might have been taken at the 1974 concert, as that's the guitar he was playing. Double-necked guitars were all the rage in the seventies among rock guitar heroes, but I'm sure none of them could do what McLaughlin could do on his. Then again, I don't think there are many guitar players alive who can do what he can do on any guitar.

Probably because it's all video, the 1984 concert is on disc one of this set. On the first track, "Radio Activity" the first solo goes to saxophone player Bill Evans on a soprano sax. Now that's pretty amazing, because there are not many players who will risk the temperamental nature of a soprano; if the temperature is even a couple of degrees too cold, it won't play, or even worse it will fight the musician the whole time. But, Evans' playing is immaculate, and he does a great solo.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that you forget him after only about two seconds of McLaughlin playing. It's been years since I've listened to him play guitar, but I don't think listening could have prepared me for seeing him play anyway. He doesn't sound like he's playing fast; his music just sounds full and rich. However, when you see him, you wonder how that can be possible. He moves so fast that he seems to barely have time to play individual notes, yet he produces the most beautiful sound I've ever heard from a plain electric guitar.

To be honest I started to get really annoyed with how much he began playing the synthesized guitar. He already had a gifted keyboard player in his band, but he was the only guitar player, and I would have much preferred to listen to him play guitar. In fact, after a while, I found it boring. Now others might not, that's just my preference; I've never been a big fan of electronic imitations when the real thing is readily available and usually sounds better.

Perhaps I don't have the ear necessary to appreciate the nuances of what he was doing, but I felt it took a lot of the soul, that is so important for Jazz to work, out of the music by utilizing the electronics so much. That became especially apparent when he would play a solo after Evans soloed on the saxophone. Going from an earthy sounding acoustic sound to the that of an electronic keyboard being played on a guitar was quite a letdown for me.

If Disc One was disappointing because of the electronics used in 1984, Disc Two's excerpts from the 1974 concert more then compensated for it. First, there was the way in which the musicians around Ponty and McLaughlin created waves of sound that came in and out like a tide. Occasionally, peaking and staying at a high level of intensity as if the tide was all the way in, and then gradually it would subside, back to calm and low tide.

Overtop of this the two front men exchanged leads. Here again they differed from rock players, as the object wasn't to draw attention to themselves with their amazing solo work, but to augment and color the sound that surrounded them. It was a marvelous example of improvisation and composition working in tandem as everybody but Ponty, McLaughlin, and the bass player, (Ralphe Armstrong) were playing off scores.

It was slightly more difficult to focus on the audio tracks that made up the balance of Disc Two, but they were more of the same, with the occasional ethereal feel thrown in thanks to some haunting vocalizations provided by Gayle Moran who also played the organ. In many ways, the 1974 concert was more like the performance of new contemporary orchestral works than a Jazz concert. In fact, aside from a Ralphe Armstrong solo at one point, I'm hard pressed to think of any examples of funk being played by anyone in this so-called fusion group.

While the sound in 1984 was more refined and less soulful then what was on display in 1974, I would still wonder at its designation as fusion. To me the word fusion was created by folk who wanted to limit Jazz to a very linear definition. Jazz by its nature is supposed to be about improvisation and innovation or it runs the risk of stagnation. If Jazz had never "fused" with other music in the first place, everybody would still be playing it on banjos and washboards.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra of John McLaughlin as seen in the DVD set Live At Montreux 1984/1974 is a great example of just how broad a net Jazz casts when it comes to the types and style of music that fall within its domain. So forget the labels for a while and sit back and enjoy the show – because that's what it's really all about after all, isn't it?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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